Automatic License Plate Readers Will Replace Downtown ‘Kioskateers’

Popular Santa Barbara City Parking Program Falls Victim to COVID Cutbacks

Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Even over Zoom, you could read the disappointment in Rob Dayton’s expression as Santa Barbara’s head transportation planner informed the City Council that the COVID-19 shutdown would likely spell the end for downtown parking kiosk workers, or “kioskateers.” 

“They are the face of downtown,” Dayton said of the 45 or so individuals who see State Street shoppers and workers in and out of the public lots, often with a smile and kind word or two. “It is difficult to have this conversation because of that. It’s an amazing culture, and we love it. For us as a team to be facing this crisis this way, and having to have this discussion today, is not easy.”

The kioskateers, Dayton explained, will be replaced over the coming year with automated license plate readers, though about 20 or so of the hourly employees will remain in their booths to monitor the new systems. Others may be offered part-time positions roaming lots and assisting customers. The switch, which had already been in discussion for some time but is now being hastened along, is expected to save the city approximately $1.1 million a year. 

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As it stands, Dayton explained, Santa Barbara is bleeding around $50,000 in lost parking revenue while pandemic closures drag on. At that pace, his department’s $5.8 million in reserves ― already down from $8 million since March ― will be depleted by the end of fiscal year 2022. “We’re falling fast and need to do something to right the ship,” he said. 

Instead of cutting costs, the only other option would be to raise revenue by eliminating the lots’ 75-minute grace period or increasing the hourly rate to $2, Dayton told the council. But neither customers nor downtown businesses owners have the appetite for that right now, he said, a sentiment echoed by Robin Elander, director of the Downtown Organization. 

The council ultimately voted to allocate $700,000 toward adopting the automation technology, which Dayton promised had been thoroughly vetted and is successfully used in communities across the country.

Councilmember Kristen Sneddon was the lone dissenting vote. “It is a gateway job for so many high school students,” she said. “It gives people a good feeling about the city.” City Administrator Paul Casey empathized with Sneddon and suggested hourly positions at the library or in the parks department may be good alternatives for those looking for part-time work.

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